Failure of Politicians: Corruption, Inaction, and Sectarian Division at the Heart of Lebanese Crisis

On Wednesday, October 27th, Lebanese leader of the Christian Lebanese Front (LF) Samir Geagea failed to appear before an Army Intelligence investigation into the October 14th street clash in Beirut, while throngs of LF supporters blocked the way to his home. Geagea and the LF deny any fault for the killings, which left seven dead, instead blaming Shiite militant group Hezbollah and their allies Amal for provoking the violence. Furthermore, the LF has attempted to deflect its role in the 2020 Beirut port explosion. On that day, Hezbollah and Amal were protesting the investigation of Judge Tarek Bitar, who has been in charge of the investigation of government officials responsible for the explosion since February, claiming Bitar was biased against them, despite no Hezbollah members yet being implicated. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has denounced the investigation and killings as dangerous provocations against Hezbollah, implicitly threatening that he has 100,000 fighters to call upon.

Many in Lebanon dread the spiking tensions and return of violence to the streets of Beirut: the very same neighborhood where the 1975-1990 Civil War began. Along with the fear, there is also deep frustration with the political leadership of Lebanon. These last few weeks of turmoil have highlighted why many Lebanese are so dissatisfied. The Lebanese political establishment has proven itself once again to be intransigent, corrupt, and all too willing to cater to sectarian forces by refusing to comply with Judge Bitar’s popularly supported investigation nor willing to stand up to Hezbollah’s threats of violence. Their neglect, which has already failed to do anything in response to the 2020 explosion or Lebanon’s spiraling economy, may very well lead to another brutal civil war for a country that has already been ravaged by decades of civil strife.

At the heart of this crisis is a political class that cannot be held responsible despite the mounting evidence of corruption, abuse of power, and impotence in dealing with critical political issues. According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s GDP contracted 20.3% in 2020 alone, plummeting from $55 billion in 2018 to $33 billion in 2020. Shockingly, this was before the onset of COVID-19 and the millions of dollars of damage caused by the Beirut port explosion. Furthermore, in 2020, the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound depreciated by 129%, resulting in surging inflation averaging 84.3% this year. The World Bank estimated 70% of Lebanon has plunged into poverty.

This economic disaster was not inadvertent. The World Bank called the crisis a “deliberate depression” in December of 2020, and in June of this year blamed, “continuous policy inaction and the absence of a fully functioning executive authority,” and that “responses by Lebanon’s leadership to these challenges have been highly inadequate.” This inadequacy is “less due to knowledge gaps and quality advice,” but instead because of “a lack of political consensus over effective policy initiatives” and a “political consensus in defense of a bankrupt economic system, which benefited a few for so long.” In other words, Lebanon’s economic disaster was made and exasperated by ineffectual and corrupt politicians.

Lebanon has also been long divided by a sectarian political structure that encourages division and enables a corrupt client system, allowing groups like Hezbollah to flourish. After the civil war, sectarian warlords were granted amnesty and became part of Lebanese politics. Now, they feed off of divisive social strife to keep the status quo that allows them to grind the state to a halt while they funnel wealth and power to themselves. Hezbollah, the most powerful and dangerous sectarian group, was founded by Iranian-backed Shiite militias during the civil war, in response to Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah was allowed to stay armed, while all other groups disarmed, because of their active resistance to Israel’s continued occupation. The group has remained armed even after Israel withdrew in 2000. Ever since, Hezbollah has only expanded its political and military power, creating what some call “a state within a state,” by wielding increasing influence over Lebanese politics through terror and threats against a Lebanese political class that has offered little to no resistance.

Despite their failures, holding Lebanese politicians responsible has proven impossible. Judge Bitar’s investigation into the Beirut explosion has been stymied at every turn by Lebanese politicians. They instigate lawsuits to delay the proceedings, refuse to appear before court, and attempt to discredit Bitar. Bitar’s predecessor was removed after two of the ministers he charged filed a complaint. Many political leaders, most vociferously Hezbollah, have been trying to do the same with Bitar. Nevertheless, his investigations are popular amongst the Lebanese people who have been protesting for political accountability since the explosion last year. As the AP reported, billboards set up in Beirut last month show a fist holding a gavel, reading “Only Tarek can take our revenge.”

There have been attempts from within Lebanon to hold politicians accountable, such as Judge Bitar’s ongoing investigation, but they have always been hampered by political pressure. To this end, the role of Lebanese judiciary officials must be strengthened and given the authority and resources they need to root out corruption. Bitar is not the only Lebanese official trying to make a more accountable government. During an interview with the New York Times, Judge Georges Attieh of the Central Inspection Board talked at length about the obstacles placed between him and his job of investigating irregularities in public services and funds, such as understaffing and withholding of legal authority. Though attempting to combat “30 years of accumulated corruption,” is like “hav[ing] small, small tools to chip away at [a] mountain,” he remains determined to find ways to improve the system, advocating for strengthening the judiciary as well as implementing digitized public records to make exchanges of funds more transparent.

For too long the politicians of Lebanon have been able to use divisive, sectarian rhetoric to encourage discord between the many ethnicities and religious groups in Lebanon. This manufactured division has allowed them to retain power, despite many Lebanese people increasingly finding common ground on many issues. Lebanon’s political system, as the New York Times notes, retains a rigid sectarian structure: the president must be Christian, the prime minister Sunni, and the Speaker of Parliament Shiite. While it was intended to give every group a voice, it instead allowed sectarian leaders to deflect any criticism of them as a criticism of their sectarian group. Lebanon’s highly cosmopolitan ethnic groups should be respected, but legally dividing them only creates more strife that groups like Hezbollah use to stoke fear and prevent change. A system that accounts for but does not entrench ethnic divisions should be implemented to better focus on issues that affect all Lebanese people.

Fixing the government won’t end Lebanon’s economic crisis overnight, nor will it change its long, bloody history of sectarian violence. It won’t rebuild the terrible damage from the Beirut port explosion or prevent unforeseeable disasters like COVID-19. But, it will give Lebanon a fair chance to deal with these problems head-on, with institutions backed by and accountable to the Lebanese people. The aforementioned problems affect all the people of Lebanon, not just one ethnic or religious group. To begin to fix the many problems plaguing Lebanon is to aim for the very system which actively prevents change. The political system of Lebanon needs to implement more accountability mechanisms while developing more acute responsiveness to the substantive desire of the Lebanese people. To augment the realization of these goals, the forces which have resisted change through corruption and inaction must be punished.

Looking back at the 2019 protests, the fulmination of anger and frustration with the government made clear that, despite the divisive politics of the elite, the people of Lebanon agreed that their system was hurting everyone. As Lebanese journalist Baria Alamuddin wrote in an op-ed for the Eurasian Review, “during the 2019 protests, demonstrators stood united against Lebanon’s discredited leaders in their entirety: Kullun yaani kullun!” an Arabic phrase used during the protests meaning “all of them means all of them.” Alamuddin continued, that now “is a moment when Lebanese society as a whole must speak with one voice: Rejecting sectarianism and rejecting Hezbollah and other parties’ attempts to steamroll the nation into war.” There is a future for Lebanon beyond sectarian division, beyond political deadlock, and beyond further war and violence. It is a future for which a desire burns in the hearts of the Lebanese people, and it is well within their grasp to realize.


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